Revealing Our Limitations: The Power of “I Don't Know” in Education

As a science teacher, I love to encourage my students to ask questions, and I very much enjoy hearing all the imaginative questions they come up with. Their questions can be so obscure, specific, or random that I often have to respond with, “I don’t know.” As adults, we must not be embarrassed to say this to children. Used correctly, this phrase can be a powerful educational tool, for several reasons.

Young man shrugging to show that he does not know something

1. Saying “I don’t know” teaches children what it means to be an adult.

Many young (and even not-so-young) adults claim they feel like they’re not “real adults”.

I suspect at least part of the reason for this is that as children, many of us had an illusion of adults being all-knowing and in control. When we grew up, we didn’t become that illusion, hence the strange feeling of not having grown up.

When we say, “I don’t know” to children, we show them that even adults don’t know everything. It’s important for children to learn that even people in positions of authority have limitations.

Recently, a student asked me, “How long does it take a liver cell to divide?” When I told him I didn’t know, he said, “But aren’t you a science teacher?” He expected that, because of my job and position of authority, I should know everything related to science. I explained to him that there’s a vast amount of knowledge in the world, and even teachers can’t know everything.

However, I didn’t stop the conversation at “I don’t know.” This brings me to the next point.

Cells dividing

2. Saying “I don’t know” provides an opportunity to teach children research skills.

“I don’t know, but let’s see if we can find out.”

Time allowing, this is a fantastic response to questions which you do not know the answer. This is a perfect way to teach a child how to identify credible sources on the internet as you try to find the answer together.
In some cases, you can’t find the answer. But this is not a problem, because...

3. Saying “I don’t know” instills a sense of wonder and curiosity in children.

“How did life on Earth start?” "Why does anything exist at all?"

Once in a while, students ask me questions which are still unanswered. In these cases, I can teach them about some competing hypotheses. But I love to add, “There are still many mysteries out there waiting to be solved.” This gets kids excited about science, learning, and discovery. After all, the world is more wondrous if we don’t have all the answers!